the assumption of responsibility for the welfare of the world
TYRANNY ON MARKET STREET
There are many reasons to dislike George Bush and his presidency. The two most important for me are his unconscionable attitude towards the national debt, and his nonchalant tolerance of the erosion of civil liberties. The two are now linked for me through more than the obvious fact that each represents a selfish squandering of our future lives for present expediencies. Two weeks ago Bush was here in Indianapolis to generate political pressure on Evan Bayh, a Democratic senator who has turned out to be both less fiscally conservative and less politically liberal than he originally presented himself, and therefore worse on both counts. Bush was afraid that Congress would pass a (my, isn’t he folksy) “little, bitty tax cut”, by which he meant the 350 billion dollar cut that has just passed. Even if it does turn out to raise the national debt by only $350 billion instead of the $1 trillion that Denny Hastert has admitted to, it is hard to imagine a universe where three hundred fifty billion of anything is little bitty.
My older brother, an officer with the Indianapolis police, was assigned to motorcade security for the president, making him ― what fun to be able to say this ― an adjunct official of the Department of Homeland Security for the day. A protester waving a UN flag on a long wooden pole imposed on the motorcade’s wide path, my brother was ordered to remove him, there was a physical confrontation, and the man was placed under arrest. Possibly he was asking for it, literally: getting arrested as a form of protest is fairly common, and the man seemed both well-acquainted with the tactics and primed for martyrdom. I did tell my brother that I thought it unlikely that the protester meant any violence, that he probably opposed it on principle.
As much as I dislike Bush, do not recognize the legitimacy of his rule, want him out of office, and want him held to account for his actions, I nonetheless want the DHS to zealously protect his life, if for no other reason than Dick Cheney. I also care enough about my brother that if he gets in a fight with someone while doing his job, I generally want him to win. And I recognize the need for the police, I want them to be safe, and I honor the risk they take in protecting us from genuine violence. But that is as far as I can go; I am a republican, in a way that George Bush will never be, and so I actually think it important that the police protect our rights as well as our bodies, and that we as citizens are treated with respect, as equals. Still, the incident should have been avoidable by both sides, I thought. It therefore struck me, and would surely have struck Alanis Morissette, as a touch ironic that, two hours after hearing my brother tell his story, I was myself in handcuffs, surrounded by three cops, having my criminal record checked, and under imminent threat of incarceration.
I only heard my brother’s story by accident. I had called to speak to his wife, to arrange a picnic the next day with her, my nephew, and my other brother. After the call, I set out on foot to scout locations and see what restaurants might be open the next morning, to avoid the real and appalling possibility that I might need to cook something. At ten o’clock or so, I arrived at my last stop, the City Market, the eponymous public building on Market Street directly across from city hall, which even at that time of night had a strong police presence. The market had no signs posted to tell me when it opened the next day. I looked through one of the windows at the many signs hanging inside, and then walked around the side of the building (a public park) to look at two other doors, expecting that the information had to be posted somewhere. Finding nothing, I gave up, came back around the front of the building, and saw one cop, followed by two others, hands on weapons, moving to intercept me. At that point, I knew I had lost.
If I was not entirely cheerful and cooperative in this interaction, that would be the reason. I despise the dominion. I despise the element of our society that rules me, that rules others, that relishes ruling us, that feels entitled and expects us to surrender. And I know the moment a cop approaches me that I am going to lose. I know that I am going to stand there until that cop, and that cop’s ego, are satisfied that I have fully capitulated to his power and authority. Do I generalize? Perhaps. But I have had very few interactions with the police, and three of them have involved the threat of jail.
There is nothing that can be done. Despite my superhuman abilities, I cannot outbattle three cops with guns. I may have more natural authority in the weaker of my knees than the three of them in toto; but they have the guns. There is little that the unarmed can do against even petty tyrants with guns, which is the persuasive liberal argument against disarming the public, though few liberals make it.
Upon being approached, I immediately stopped walking, and did not move from that spot until my release. When instructed to do so, I showed both hands, being careful not to move suddenly or suspiciously. And at no time did I raise my voice. All of this is fairly objective and, I think, sufficient to demonstrate that I was in no way a threat. Everything I did between the appearance of the police and their restraint of me was verbal, at no point did I express any threat, and by the time I was restrained I had already twice given the complete story of what I was doing ― picnic, nephew, cooking, the whole ridiculous thing.
I believe, presumably from watching too much television drama, that the police are required, under the constitution’s fourth amendment, to have probable cause for any interference in the private lives of citizens, and that I am entitled, under the sixth amendment, to know that cause. I was to learn later that the first cop, who turned out to be a decent person and dedicated public servant, did not actually know why he was stopping me. That would explain the first misunderstanding. Because he did not know, he did not tell me, and I was forced to ask. He had not even bothered to ask me what I was doing. And yet it was a point repeated frequently during the exchange, as a supposed justification for my continued detention, that I would not be quiet, and that I insisted on asking questions.
Mostly this was on the part of the chief officer, a middle-aged deputy who had observed me as he stood in front of city hall talking on his cell phone. I had made eye contact with him earlier, thinking I might cross the street to ask him for information about the coming day’s parade, which was bringing my nephew and sister-in-law downtown for the day. He claimed to believe that I was stupid enough to contemplate a break-in across from the government center under the acknowledged watch of the police. He had sent his subordinate to stop me without informing him why. When the full trio was in place, and I still had not moved, I explained for the second time what I was doing. I did not, however, give up my attempt to be told what I was being detained for. Nor was I willing to concede that they had any right or authority to do as they were doing. I was accused of having ‘attitude’, by which was meant “claiming to have rights”. I was accused of being ‘uncooperative’, by which was meant “failing to debase self at first opportunity”. When it became clear to him that I was not so stupid as to commit the original thought-crime, I was cast instead as some smart-ass freak. Since I could be charged with no criminal intent, I was threatened with arrest for trespass (standing on the steps of a public building) and violation of park ordinances (prohibiting occupancy after dark). Those laws, as we all know, exist solely to harass vagrants, to prevent them from sleeping in public locations, and since vagrants are among the least-powerful adults in our society, they are generally very ‘cooperative’ and exhibit very little ‘attitude’. How can they afford it?
This cop was used to bullying people; that was apparent. He was not inclined to listen to my questions, let alone answer them. He wanted only subservience from me, for me to answer every question whatsoever, to offer verbal obeisance, and otherwise to keep my mouth shut. He conveyed to me at some point, amid the disorienting surrealism of the experience, that he was going to insist on winning. He was not about to let some egghead punk leave an encounter with him with a sliver of dignity. Before I fully realized his mentality, I had spent quite a number of minutes trying to explain my desire to know what I was being held for. There was nothing more for me to explain about my earlier actions; they were no longer at issue, nor was that even pretended. When the cuffs finally went on, it was not for the supposed violation or planned violation of any law, but for daring to question my treatment at the hands of the state.
There on Market Street I saw the haughty expression on the neighborly face of evil. This man probably has a wife and children. He probably gives money to his church. He has more than once, I am sure, risked his life for a cause he believes in. And yet I do not excuse him. I do not consider that after so long in danger for a social cause it is acceptable to become the dominion. That, in a body, is what he was. He felt himself entitled to tell me what to do; and it was quite evidently important to him that I submit. He had the power over me, and he knew it, and he knew that I knew it, but it was necessary to humiliate me nonetheless; if through nothing else but silence, I would submit. Which, of course, I did.
The anger of that humiliation, accumulated with other such outrages, is likely to emerge at unfortunate times. A few months ago, a few blocks from Market Street, I encountered a private commercial display on public property (which is bad enough) and was confronted by a kid who had in some way been “deputized” by private security to keep ordinary people off of a particular stretch of sidewalk. I do not know by what authority the state sells a private interest the right to bar me from public property. The boy was, like most twelve-year-olds, as tall as I, but he did not have a gun and therefore had no physical threat to back up the self-important, self-righteous, adversarial way in which he was executing his understanding of his duty, which included the clear belief that he was somehow the master of that particular sidewalk and anyone who might venture to walk on it. Feeling no fear but that for my civil liberty, I gave him an intellectual battering that represented a serious overreaction to his trivial act of pomposity. He probably forgot it quickly; still, I regretted it just as quickly, for he was merely a stupid kid doing as he was told. But under that I detected, and responded to, the social idea that some are, and should be, empowered to tell the rest of us what to do. This child had believed that, regardless of my personal merit, he was my superior, and after decades of submitting to this presumption I was hardly going to have it from someone who cannot add fractions. The only thing worse than being subject to dominion is being subjected to it.
There have been minor effects from my minor ordeal with the police. First, I have occasionally lashed out in private moments of violence that roughly approximate what I would like to have done to the person so determined to wield power over me. Second, I have been exceedingly reluctant to leave the house after dark, or to make my rightful use of public property, or to be within sight of the police, knowing that the outcome of another interaction will be either complete debasement or a night in jail. I already know the response that some will make; but those who would blithely assert that, by endorsing the war in Iraq, I have helped empower George Bush’s war on freedom at home, have totally missed the point. I cannot feel sorry for myself, as I have certainly done, or listen to the criticism of my brother, which has been much in the news locally and even nationally, or remark on the lack of due process for the detainees at Guantanamo Bay, without simultaneously noting that such conditions need to change everywhere, and especially and most urgently where they are the worst. For now that is China, Burma, Cuba, Iran, Zimbabwe, Syria, North Korea, Turkmenistan, and too many other places. A few months ago it included Iraq. If I can regret my own mistreatment it is because I have considered the logical consequences of my regret of the mistreatment of others. Had one of you wandered by on Market Street the other night, you would have been powerless to help, and would wisely have done nothing. But would you still have done nothing had you not been powerless?
© O.T. FORD
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